Performing Arts

Theater Review: ‘Snow in Midsummer’: The Importance of Justice

BY Judd Hollander TIMEJune 22, 2022 PRINT

NEW YORK—There’s a saying that “the truth will set you free,” but for that to happen, the truth must first be revealed. And there are those who will do anything to keep it hidden, a point made clear in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s powerful and, sadly, quite topical drama “Snow in Midsummer,” now at Classic Stage Company.

In present day China, the ironically named New Harmony is, for all intents and purposes, a company town. Formerly known as “Cloud Forest,” it’s where Master Zhang (Kenneth Lee) established a thriving business, with multiple factories. The Zhang family quickly became the town’s biggest employer and power in town.

However, Zhang’s sudden murder threatens to throw the New Harmony status quo into chaos. Accused as his murderer is a young woman named Dou Yi (Dorcus Leung), who is subsequently sentenced to death, which is carried out with alacrity.

Epoch Times Photo
(L–R) Teresa Avia Lim as Tianyun, Alex Vinh as Worker Huang, Julian Leong as Worker Fang, Paul Juhn as Worker Jing, and Wai Ching Ho as Nurse Wong and Mother Cai in “Snow in Midsummer.” (Julieta Cervantes)

Shortly before she dies, Dou Yi places a curse on the land. The curse will bring a three-year drought that will last until snow falls in June and her innocence is proven. The drought and the resulting devastation that it brings to the countryside follow all too quickly.

Three years later, successful businesswoman Tianyun (Teresa Avia Lim) arrives to a warm welcome from the locals. She has worked her way up from nothing and intends to purchase the Zhang-owned factories and, thus, become the new boss in town. Handsome Zhang (John Yi), who took over the family business when his father died, is anxious to sell his holdings, so he can begin a new life far away from New Harmony and its memories.

Not long after, Tianyun’s adopted daughter Fei-Fei (Fin Moulding) begins to act strangely. The young girl, who’s about to turn 7, seems to be talking to a figure that no one else can see. That figure is the spirit of Dou Yi. As Tianyun tries to make sense of the situation, she’s met with resistance at every turn, with no one in town wanting to talk about what happened.

Desperate to help her daughter, Tianyun begins to uncover a dark conspiracy. What she discovers involves a forbidden love and deeply buried family secrets. She also uncovers unscrupulous judges and doctors, and a highly questionable practice when it comes to obtaining human organs—circumstances which could very well still be in vogue today in China.

The Need to Stand Up for Truth

Based on a Chinese tale from the 13th century, “Snow in Midsummer” is a story about the importance of truth, along with how turning a blind eye to a wrong can be just as criminal as committing the actual act.

Even more telling is the way the play offers an unflinching look at a corrupt system on multiple levels. The system is built on satisfying those who can pay for whatever outcome they want, not minding the innocents destroyed in the process. Those who can pay may try to excuse their actions by believing it was all for a greater good, or that events would have happened as they did, regardless.

Yet time and again it is shown how such decisions lead to tragedy. This is something organ recipient Rocket Wu (Tommy Bo) experiences firsthand when he becomes filled with guilt and remorse over what was done in the name of love.

Also interesting is the way the play effectively contrasts a modern world—complete with cell phones, texting, and heart transplants—with people’s fears of the supernatural.

The town workers, for example, demand that Tianyun, who they see as the new power in town, fix what is happening and thus save them all from Dou Yi’s anger. This is despite the fact that Tianyun had no knowledge of the curse or its circumstances until recently, much less any idea of how to end it.

A Compelling Performance

Taking place on a relatively bare stage, and with the help of flashbacks, the performers are able to powerfully recreate the tale depicted. Direction by Zi Alikhan shows a firm understanding of the story and is able to highlight the piece’s constant, underlying tension.

Epoch Times Photo
John Yi as Handsome Zhang in “Snow in Midsummer.” (Julieta Cervantes)

Yet, at the same time, the director keeps the pace of events moving smoothly enough to allow the audience to be slowly drawn into the story.

The only major technical problem in the show is with the sound design. It is hard to hear the actors at points, in particular, little Moulding. The fact that the play takes place in the round, with the actors not always facing the entire audience, doesn’t help matters.

Yi is convincing as Handsome Zhang, a seemingly self-assured and somewhat smarmy sort, who in the end is revealed to be far more insecure than originally perceived. Lim is very good as Tianyun, who, as the mystery unfolds for her, learns of, and reacts to, events at the same time the audience does.

Moulding does a realistic job as Fei-Fei, her character is compelling without being overly precocious. Leung is excellent as Dou Yi, a woman who gets swept up in events beyond her control while her attitude changes from innocence to desperation to anger and, finally, to seeking vengeance. Wai Ching Ho turns in a fine performance as the owner of a local bar, and former wet nurse to Handsome Zhang.

With a running time that feels half its length, “Snow in Midsummer” is a striking reminder of how no one is exempt from the decisions they make, and how it’s only by the acknowledgement of the truth that those affected finally move on and begin anew.

It’s also a timely piece, given the accounts of organ trafficking that continue to plague people of faith in China.

‘Snow in Midsummer’
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St., New York, NY
Tickets: ClassicStage.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)
Closes: July 9

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.
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